How can we equip Medical Students with the skills to prevent suicide?

I lost my best friend to suicide when we were in our early twenties. Now, with the support of the Churchill Fellowship, I’m on a mission to find ways to improve suicide prevention in the UK.

When we lost Olly to suicide in 2017 a group of us formed to channel our intense grief towards two simple goals: to celebrate Olly’s life and to prevent suicide. 

What started as a small group, led by Olly’s incredible Mum, Ann, has since evolved into the charity that we know and operate today. Olly’s Future now runs programmes nationally and proudly works in partnership with the NHS, the British Medical Association and many other respected organisations.

A large part of our focus since becoming a charity in 2020 has been on suicide prevention training. We developed the interactive 90-minute training course,  Talking About Suicide: Ten Tools (TAS10), in partnership with Rose Allett has since gone on to train thousands. 

With funding from the British Medical Association, we were able to create Dr SAMS (Suicide Awareness in Medical Students), a course specially designed to give medical students the skills to support their future patients, as well as themselves and their colleagues, who may also be at risk. 

In the UK, GPs report that 40% of their appointments are related to mental health (Mind), and many who attempt suicide make some type of healthcare visit in the weeks or months before the attempt. Medical professionals will at some point have contact with someone who may be feeling suicidal but may be struggling. Data suggests that doctors, nurses and students are more at risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts than the average person.

Despite this, universities in the UK do not provide compulsory training in suicide prevention to their students as part of their medical degree. We created Dr SAMS to plug this gap and our ambition is to grow from the universities we currently work with (Brighton and Sussex, Cardiff, Kent and Medway, University of Exeter, and University College London) and make suicide prevention training a compulsory part of the medical curriculum across the UK. 

With this goal in mind, last year I submitted a proposal to the Churchill Fellowship to research ways suicide prevention training has made a real impact around the world, with a special focus on medical students. Each year the Churchill Fellowship funds research projects which involve gathering knowledge from outside of the UK to make substantial changes back home. The Fellowship funds projects across a number of themes, including suicide prevention. 

In the new year I will be visiting pioneering projects across the USA, Canada and India to gather learnings that can enhance Dr. SAMS and help us achieve our aims of making suicide prevention training compulsory for medical students in the UK. I’ll be visiting programmes in Washington State, which became the first state in the USA to make suicide prevention training compulsory for healthcare workers, as well as speaking with academics in India who tested the efficacy of different methods of suicide prevention training.

My focus will not only be on learning about the means and methods of training but also the way the training is funded and scaled on a state-wide or nationwide level.

I’m not a doctor myself. Day to day, I work at The Guardian, where my role is to design new products and services for our readers that grow the reach of our journalism. I believe the skills I use in my profession, as well as my personal experience, allow me to address this problem from a new perspective, and hopefully arrive at some exciting and impactful ideas.

I am driven to research this topic further to enhance the lifesaving work of Olly’s Future and prevent the tragedy of losing people to suicide in the UK and around the world. Personally, I will be helping create a lasting legacy for Olly.

I will be sharing my experience of the project through the Olly’s Future website – so you can follow along there. If you have any thoughts on the project you’d like to share or useful contacts of people you recommend speaking to please email me at [email protected]

Rory (left) with Otis, Marcus and Olly (right) celebrating a London Underground themed birthday

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